Stony Brook volleyball team has successful year of firsts under first-year coach Kristin Belzung

Stony Brook volleyball team has successful year of firsts under first-year coach Kristin Belzung
McKyla Brooks, center, was the American East tournament’s MVP after Stony Brook swept both matches to earn the league’s automatic bid. (Stony Brook Athletics)

When Kristin Belzung interviewed for the Stony Brook job after last season, she found an audience of administrators who liked her vision of getting the Seawolves to the NCAA tournament.

But there was no way for anyone to know it would happen this fast.

When Stony Brook (18-12) faces No. 5 seed Nebraska (26-4) in the opening round at 7 p.m. Friday, it will mark the Seawolves’ first trip to the NCAA tournament since moving to Division I in the 1990s, and it comes in Belzung’s first season.

“When we got here and sat in the locker room in our first team meeting,” Belzung said, “we expressed that we believed this was a possible goal and we’d work our tails off to achieve it.”

Belzung, from Ankeny, Iowa, is a Midwesterner through and through. She was Northern Iowa’s starting setter in the mid-2000s and held assistant jobs at Wyoming and South Dakota State. Her first trip to New York City was when she interviewed at Stony Brook, a school of more than 24,000 students on Long Island.

“I had no idea what this place would be like,” she said.

But it didn’t take long for her to see that the school was committed to student-athletes. Facilities were improving, and she liked the academic support Stony Brook had for its players.

“The second I talked with the administration, just the culture of this department,” Belzung said. “You could tell there had been success in other programs. We knew the volleyball team would be supported to allow us to have a similar level of success.”

Belzung sold her vision of the Seawolves becoming a system team with every player knowing a specific responsibility. She credits the three seniors — Melann Amory, Cydney Bowman and Abby Hickey — for helping to get the team to buy into the strategy.

Defensively, Belzung drew much from her stint at Wyoming, where the Cowgirls averaged more than 20 wins per year in her four seasons as an assistant. Stony Brook transitioned into a balanced attack with five players reaching more than 200 kills this year.

Only one of those five is a senior, pointing to a bright future for the program. But Stony Brook seized on the present in the America East tournament, which followed one of its toughest stretches.

The Seawolves lost three straight to end the regular season, including back-to-back home losses to Albany and Binghamton. That dropped Stony Brook to 6-6 in conference play and sent it to the league tournament as the No. 4 seed for a rematch with top-seeded Albany.

But Belzung said in the week leading up to the conference tournament, she saw a renewed intensity at practice — players diving for balls, covering hitters, giving up their bodies to keep rallies alive.

“I’ve never seen that look in their eyes before,” she said.

In the semifinals, the Seawolves swept Albany, which was 11-1 in regular-season league play, then swept Binghamton to earn the conference’s automatic bid. McKyla Brooks, the Seawolves’ 5-foot-8 middle blocker, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player after notching 30 kills over the two victories.

“I think last weekend was the best volleyball we’d played of the year,” Belzung said.

With their NCAA bid secured, the Seawolves learned during Sunday’s selection show that they would be coming to Lincoln. It will be the first time NU has faced Stony Brook, but not the first time the Huskers face Belzung in the postseason.

They swept Belzung’s Northern Iowa team at the NU Coliseum in the second round of the 2006 NCAA tournament on the way to the their third national championship.

The coach remembered seeing the Coliseum stands packed shoulder to shoulder, while the largest crowd to watch a Stony Brook match this season was 402.

Get your ticket requests in early, Belzung told her players. Your friends and family will not be able to walk up and buy a seat at the Devaney Center, which quickly sold out for the weekend.

“I’m excited because I think for them to experience this kind of environment will be amazing,” Belzung said. “There is nothing quite like the NCAA tournament. That experience is the coolest experience. Now that they know what they’d been missing, they’ll work that much harder to get that experience again.”